Chronicling (failed) ideas of the American left over the centuries
Daniel Flynn’s latest examination of the political left and its peccadilloes is a chronology of the left’s ideas and efforts in America, from Robert Owen’s failed New Harmony community in the 1820s through the current race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, a battle joined by two pedigreed leftists.
This is Mr. Flynn’s third trip through the left’s mares-nest of dysfunctional ideas. His 2002 “Why the Left Hates America” and his 2004 “Intellectual Morons” pick through left ideology and some of the breathtaking intellectual hairballs it has coughed up. He describes how otherwise smart people, in the grip of ideology, fall for dumb ideas.
How else explain delusions such as: The United States is an imperial menace to the world and somehow orchestrated the September 11 attacks for its own dark purposes, CO2 threatens the very existence of the world, 10 percent of the population is homosexual, the world’s resources will soon be all gone, men and women are essentially the same, humans have ruined the world for polar bears and earthworms, etc.
These ideas aren’t shouted by drug-addled people in tattered clothes on street corners, but are promoted by professors at pricey universities, by clergypersons, by reporters and commentators with toney publications, and by others in the cognitive elites with the IQs to know better.
In “History” Mr. Flynn distills the ideas of the left in America and shows the various attempts to put them into action in a straight chronology from the republic’s early days to now. Through this approach readers see the variations, and more importantly the commonalities, of leftist thought and action. He describes the various utopian socialist communities of the 19th century, as well as the later incarnations of leftism: Populism, progressivism, socialism, communism, liberalism. He compares the pre-WWII Old Left, which was mostly about economics, with the post-war New Left, which is as at least as much about culture as about economics.
Mr. Flynn chronicles the great leaps forward of leftist government that accompanied WWI, the Great Depression and WWII, and LBJ’s Great Society along with the revolution of ideas in the Sixties. There are walk-ons by largely apolitical behavioral leftists, such as hippies and various other dropouts and burnouts, who just wanted, like, sex, drugs, and rock and roll, man.
The combinations and permutations of leftism in America vary, as do the temperaments of the people striving to implement these ideas. The players range from gentle 19th century socialists to 20th century communist thugs, for whom murder is a legitimate political tactic. We find naive and theory-besotted do-gooders sharing some of the same ideological space with raving lunatics. And we see opportunistic politicians exploiting both.
Variations aside, we can see in the proposals of early 19th century reformer Robert Owen — elimination of: Personal responsibility, the nuclear family, private property, religion, and marriage — a core of ideas and attitudes that we can follow in a more or less straight line from the earliest days of the republic through contemporary left orthodoxy.
“The core principal of socialism, as understood by the Owenites who coined the term, was the transfer of responsibility from the individual to the social. Since society, not its individual components, is responsible, it is society that should be punished or rewarded, blamed or credited.” Sound familiar? Recurring themes in left thinking and sensibilities include utopianism, the desire to perfect a rowdy and unperfect world, and the hubris to think it can be done. Leftists are quick to reject man’s accumulated wisdom as reflected in tradition (which leftist like to call “the dead hand of the past”) in favor of the latest theories cooked up in universities and other unreliable laboratories. God is out, replaced by the new priesthood of secular intellectuals who promise to deliver heaven this side of the grave.
Of course, history, which leftists ignore in order to continue believing their theories, demonstrates that where leftist schemes have been implemented they haven’t delivered heaven. What they’ve delivered is misery, poverty, tyranny, and death (You could look it up — see the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe under same, various people’s republics, Cambodia under Pol Pot, et al). The central ideas of the left are old ones, and they’ve failed over and over again.
In the United States, where we’ve not suffered the kind of full-bore leftist regimes that have existed elsewhere, the results have been less calamitous. But Mr. Flynn is convincing in arguing that the leftism of the New Deal and its smothering “expert” commissars made the Great Depression deeper and made it last longer than it otherwise would have. And he chronicles how adopting the left’s approach to crime and punishment beginning in the sixties led to the biggest crime wave in the nation’s history.
Leftist movements have ever been long on intellectuals and leisure-class idlers, but short on farmers and mechanics, which is largely why they fail, everyone being too busy talking when the crops need to be tended or the wagons need to be fixed. Karl Marx, an icon of the left who promoted himself and his theories as saviors of the working man, was never in a mill or a mine in his life.
Marx, and countless children of privilege who’ve attempted to pump meaning into otherwise pointless lives by involving themselves in various schemes to improve the working classes, never did a day’s work in their lives. This explains why real workers, whose lives are tied to reality as those of their alleged benefactors hardly ever are, have rarely been enthusiastic about leftist schemes not related to improving working conditions. Airy notions about improving the lot of Man, or exotic sexual practices, have never gotten much traction here.
“History of the American Left” is exhaustively-researched, thoroughly-detailed and clearly-written. Readers will gain an understanding of the core differences between the various leftist approaches to life and governance, which stand in stark contrast to those of the conservative side, which are based less on theory than on tradition and rely more on personal initiative than on government micro-management.
Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.